A critic goes to a Synetic preview and finds much to praise

A large group assembled in the lobby of Synetic Theater’s auditorium space in Crystal City before last Wednesday night’s performance of “Titus Andronicus.” The playgoers paid the rock-bottom price of 10 bucks a head to attend the preview — but did they all know that this would be the first time any paying audience would be seeing it, after weeks of exhausting rehearsals?

Backstage at that moment, Philip Fletcher —a paralegal by day and graceful Synetic mainstay by night — was preparing to reveal the Titus he had been painstakingly working to create during all those arduous weeks. For his part, the director, Paata Tsikurishvili, was getting ready, too, to determine how much coaching might still be needed by the 15 actors in this wordless, physically demanding version of one of Shakespeare’s early tragedies.

Fletcher, though, was eager to take the play to the people. “In rehearsal, I feel so confined and restricted,” he said later. “As soon as I get onstage, it’s a release, and in that situation, when the stage is turned over to me, the audience isn’t there anymore. And it’s such freedom.”

I was there that night — totally uncustomarily — precisely because I so rarely get to be present at a production’s public birth. By agreement with Tsikurishvili, Synetic’s artistic chief and a director whose work I’ve been following for more than 15 years, I showed up three nights prior to the official opening, to get a sense of what exposure to these first moments, normally denied a reviewer, are like. What exactly, does a first-preview audience see that a critic doesn’t, a few performances later? What is it that a director discerns on such a night, that the rest of us might not?

“I don’t think the audience is detecting what I’m seeing and what I’m feeling about the show,” said Tsikurishvili afterward. “But five seconds more, five seconds less, makes a big difference to me. You don’t see that, it’s the tiny, tiny details, but the feeling is different, the experience is a little different. Of course, what I do is for the audience, but those changes I make are for me, because of the way I see it.”

At this first preview, what I saw was a highly satisfying distillation of Shakespeare — one of the most successful in Synetic’s extensive history of boiling down the plays to seductive movement, as choreographed by Tsikurishvili’s wife, Irina. “Titus Andronicus,” a revenge tragedy that happens also to be the goriest in the canon, is the 13th work of Shakespeare that Synetic has staged in its wordless series. And in Emily Whitworth’s lucid adaptation, you can see how the company’s long experience with the style has helped it build in clarity and character richness.

Whitworth, a company member for the past several years, approached Tsikurishvili with a black binder full of her ideas for tackling “Titus” — which, given the company’s affinity for the grotesque, would have seemed to me a natural. The director told her he’d think about staging it, she recalled in an interview. Soon thereafter, she received a text from him. “Check the season announcement,” it said. “Titus” was on the list. “It was chills,” she said of her reaction.

And now, at the first preview, Whitworth was acting as an extra pair of eyes for Tsikurishvili, trying to determine if there were any moments that could be sharpened with trims. Her concerns, she said, were “with how the actors are progressing as they fall into a rhythm: Are there places to cut out, what are the moments that are essential, and what could we take out?”

The run time of that first preview was 1 hour 48 minutes; by the second preview, it would be slimmed down by nine minutes. A crowd scene involving Roman senators, for example, would be reduced by several beats, because Tsikurishvili sensed that it lingered after making its narrative point.

On that first night, though, I couldn’t have told anyone what to cut. Tsikurishvili has assembled an all-star Synetic cast for “Titus”: Fletcher, who has appeared in more than 40 Synetic shows, in the title role; Irina as Titus’s nemesis, Tamora, the evil, vanquished queen of the Goths; Alex Mills and Dallas Tolentino as Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius; Dan Istrate as Roman emperor Saturninus, and Irina Kavsadze as Titus’s daughter, poor Lavinia, subjected to perhaps the vilest abuse of any character in Shakespeare. (And thereby triggering the most macabre dinner scene in Elizabethan drama.)

The play triggered for the Tsikurishvilis one of their more inspired flights of imagination of late, suggested by the barbarities inflicted on Lavinia. You might call it the dance of the red hands, a balletic interlude with a dancing corps decked out in scarlet gloves. Moments like these reveal — even as a production is breathing for the first time — that Synetic is still firmly in the mesmerizing business.

Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Emily Whitworth. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreography, Irina Tsikurishvili; sets, Phil Charlwood; lighting, Brian S. Allard; costumes, Erik Teague; sound, Thomas Sowers; music, Konstantine Lortkipanidze. About 100 minutes. $15-$60. Through May 27 at Synetic Theater, 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. synetictheater.org or 866-811-4111.

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